Ponca Tribe Scores Casino Victory Against Iowa, Nebraska in Federal Appeals Court

Posted on: September 1, 2021, 02:12h. 

Last updated on: September 1, 2021, 03:11h.

A federal appeals court has upheld the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska’s legal right to have built its Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa.

Prairie Flower Casino
The Ponca opened its modest Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake in 2018 after years of legal battles. (Image: AZCentral)

The tribe opened the casino in November 2018, despite facing legal challenges that sought to derail the project for more than a decade.

On Monday, the Eighth Circuit panel of three judges ruled that the Ponca Restoration Act (PRA) of 1990 authorized the tribe to conduct business on the land it purchased in Carter Lake in 1999, and that includes gaming.

Land Dispute

Previously, Iowa Assistant Attorney General John Lundquist argued the Carter Lake parcel was not eligible for a casino. That’s because it was not part of the lands restored to the tribe by PRA.

In fact, the Act only specifically identified land in Knox and Boyd Counties, Nebraska — some 100 miles away — as that which “shall be transferred to the state for the benefit of the Tribe,” Lundquist claimed.

But the panel wrote this did not mean the US Secretary of the Interior “lacks authority to restore lands elsewhere.”

“Congress has shown that it knows how to limit a tribe’s ability to conduct gaming on its land when it wishes to do so,” it continued. “The Ponca Restoration Act, by contrast, contains no language limiting gaming or the ‘restoration of lands’ for the Tribe.”

Quirky Geography

It’s not just the State of Iowa that has been pursuing the Ponca through the courts, but also the State of Nebraska.

That’s because of the peculiar geography of Carter Lake, a two-mile tract of Iowa that lies west of the Missouri River and is surrounded entirely by Nebraska. The anomaly was created by flooding that changed the course of the river around 140 years ago.

Carter Lake is in Iowa, but to all intents and purposes, it’s in Nebraska. Meanwhile, the City of Council Bluffs is on the other side of the river, but also in Iowa. It joined the case because it wants to protect its existing commercial casinos, Ameristar, Harrah’s, and the Horseshoe, which previously got all the footfall from the other side of the river.

Collectively, the three casinos pay around $80 million in taxes to the state each year, and an additional $2 million to the city, according to The Des Moines Register.

Prairie Flower

This is not the first time the Ponca have scored a big legal victory in a federal court. In 1879, the tribe’s chief, Standing Bear, successfully argued that Native Americans were “persons within the meaning of the law,” winning the right of habeus corpus.

The Prairie Flower Casino is named for Standing Bear’s daughter, who died during or shortly after the tribe’s forced “removal” to Oklahoma two years earlier.